I heard a story this morning on the Today Show, and it made a point of what I
had been intending to write about:
“A Five thousand dollar fine . . . . A ten thousand dollar fine . . . . Add thirty days in jail.”
These were the words of a Florida judge who piled on the penalties on a young woman who brazenly flaunted her displeasure at sentencing. The thirty days in jail was the consequence of her “flipping the bird” at the judge.
Consequences. What happened to consequences? The judge reminded me.
Friends, people all around me have been talking about the rude behavior of young adults. I have been looking at our society, not with the eyes of a psychologist or a sociologist, but as a woman having lived a long time, a mother of a generation of children born in the 1980s, and with a little bit of knowledge through observation and experience of my own life and upbringing.
Looking back to seek better understanding of why rudeness has so pervaded our culture I see that I was a little girl of the 1950s, a teenager during the 60s, and a woman of the 1970s. Which means that I progressed through the building of the Post-War American Dream while a Cold War nuclear holocaust loomed threateningly on my horizon, through the revelatory Sexual Revolution and the Civil Rights movement of the 60s and the Feminist and Peace Movements of the 70s. Wow! Which also means that I grew up the innocent child of the 50s, who was unquestioning and respectful of authority, to become an adult protesting that very same authority of my childhood.
But, we protested injustice, not so much those in authority, even though sometimes authority and injustice intersected. We didn’t use rudeness to appear cool. We weren’t brought up like that. We used humor, music and the art to express our distress at the suppressive factions in our society. We appealed to the heart and soul and sense of fair play of our reluctant citizens to affect change by doing the right thing.
So I ask why young adults are so rude? I had to understand the system, and yes, respect the older generation—we got smacked when we were rude to our elders—those misguided elders who built our Levitt Towns that fit us into a boxed up society. It was important to have knowledge of the history of how we had arrived to the point where things had to change before I, as an individual, could even approach making a protest against what I saw as suppression and injustice. So I look back further, now, and I see the cyclical attitudes. I see comparisons from the past to what’s going on today. And see the differences.
When Parker and Benchley and the Round Table gang owned the outrageous behavior of the youth of the 1920s, (most were in their thirties at the time), the world had just witnessed the misery of World War I, the pandemic of ’18, the restraints of Prohibition and finally, after an eighty year struggle, a liberating Women’s Suffrage. “Live today because tomorrow we will all be dead” was the mantra. After growing up under Victorian constraints, the nation’s youth behaved badly at times. Promiscuous sex—sex for sex sake without affection—became the thing to do. Say and do anything to shock, be outrageous, modesty, propriety be damned . . . .
Where the Sexual Revolution of my generation, the 1960s, was advanced by the development of new contraceptives, as well as the usual youthful rebellion, it was also in large part Flower Power. Love was at its center. Love and peace and compassion for our brothers and sisters were at the center of this in the time of war, of Viet Nam, an ongoing Cold War, and what was seen as the spiraling buildup of a heartless corporate capitalistic society.
As a parent of children born in the 1980s, I was strict in many ways, yet lenient in others. I let my kids make their own choices—how they dressed, wore their hair. I didn’t censor the airing of their opinions. The 80s were a prosperous decade, not unlike the 1920s. We had come out of a pointless war and women had a freedom carried through from the Feminist Movement. Children were tossed into daycare, children’s fashion demands ate through the family budget and MTV was now instructing our youth. Madonna chanted “Like a Virgin” to ten year old kids. When I was ten I had no idea what a virgin was other that the first name of Mary, Jesus’ mother.
By the 1990’s I watched as the cycle continued to where sexual relations between children in Middle School became the norm, and “hooking-up” had nothing to do with an expression of love and affection but only as notches accrued toward a badge of accomplishment. I was in the Girl Scouts. We earned our badges through more civic causes. Seinfeld was a show that made people laugh at its obnoxious characters who were blatantly self-concerned, demanding and often cruel people. Only Crammer had a heart, though misguided. We laughed because they would say out loud what we sometimes think but dare not say to another human being. Our kids watched the show, laughed, and then went out into the world and actually said the things we older folk had the sense enough to keep to ourselves. And Seinfeld was never a festival of bon mots, like Frazier was, rather the airing of observations of ironic situations vocalized by its cast. The Round Table crowd was never that obnoxious toward people outside their circle. Without humor, you were just crass.
I admit to having showed annoyance at the shop clerk who won’t get off the cell phone with her girlfriend to ring up my purchase, or the occasional GP who resents my request for a second opinion and the waitress who refers to octogenarian women at lunch as, “you guys” instead of “ladies”. But, I’m talking about something quite different.
So what have we wrought upon ourselves? A generation of self-centered, loudmouth, humorless, rude and insensitive Constanzas and Elaines? A culture of young adults who disregard the feelings of others, who flaunt authority, not because of any righteous cause or principle, but because there are no consequences to odious behavior and it lends them a sense of power when they feel powerless? Why are they feeling so powerless?
What is this phenomenon of widespread entitlement? Entitlement without ever having suffered through adversity? Perhaps these young people need a shock, a real cause to funnel their energies into, to build real character, I don’t know. As I said, I’m not a sociologist. I must remember that two thousand years ago Aristotle commented on the untoward behavior of the younger generation. In the early 1960s Paul Lind agonized in Bye Bye Birdie, “Kids! What’s the matter with kids today?”
I sing, “Adults! What’s the matter with adults these days?”
Until next time,